One thing is painfully absent from the digitally-connected, work-from-anywhere era: serendipity. You can schedule Teams meetings and ping colleagues with instant messages, but it’s very hard to replicate the kind of information flow that used to take place in the office.
And the absence doesn’t just diminish our workplace social lives, but it constrains the way information flows between teams and departments, and it has put a huge damper on informal collaboration. It may also affect revenues, too: the National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper earlier this year that showed that when two randomly matched salespeople had lunch together, they shared ideas and strategies that boosted both of their revenues by 24 percent.
It’s almost impossible to use the same tools that your organization uses for structured meetings to introduce the serendipitous “watercooler dynamic” to the digital world. (Yes, you could set up a meeting in Teams or Zoom, create breakout rooms, and randomly assign people to different rooms — but movement from one conversation to another isn’t easy; you can’t leave a group conversation to have a one-on-one, private conversation; and, perhaps most importantly, it feels like a meeting, not a social environment.)
We’ve been testing out tools that support serendipity this year. These are seven of the best. All of them, with the exception of VirBELA, are browser-based, so they don’t require you to download new software. But they may run into security or firewall issues on your corporate network — so some may need special dispensation from IT to use them.
Less Structured Environments
Remo gives you a floor plan that looks like an expansive cafeteria or conference ballroom, with lots of tables of various sizes. When you join, you’re put at a random table, and you can video chat with the people at that table. But it’s also easy to click on a different table and join that conversation, or send a chat message to a colleague and ask if they’d like to peel off for a sidebar conversation. The event organizer can define topics for tables (we’ve done some serious ones, but have also tried “vacation plans” and “Netflix recommendations”), or just leave it up to the participants. Event organizers can also make announcements — perhaps encouraging people to switch tables every 15 minutes. Tables are limited in size, depending on the subscription level you choose, to between four and eight people.
A group event space with table-based discussions that participants can move freely between. You can also easily create your own table with another participant. Ambient sound from other conversations makes it sound more like a room full of people. It’s similar to Remo, but doesn’t use the visual metaphor of a “floor plan” to give people a sense for where they are.
VirBELA requires that you download its software before you enter its three-dimensional world, but it’s worth it — at least for a test to see if you like it. You can find a place in VirBELA’s open campus to have a conversation with colleagues, or you can pay the company to rent a private office or set up a world just for your company. What’s cool about VirBELA is that you aren’t on camera, but the audio quality is very good, so you can chat with others without the need to constantly stare into your webcam. You do worry a bit, though, about whether your avatar looks like he or she is paying attention, and making appropriate eye contact. Sometimes, people host public networking events or conferences in VirBELA, which is a good opportunity to meet people outside of your company.
Rather than giving you an entire virtual world to roam around, Sophya sets up a two-dimensional virtual office space. It’s simpler to set up an avatar, and you don’t worry as much about what your avatar is doing at a given moment. When you get close to another person’s avatar, a video chat starts up. Others can walk over and join. In theory, you could have a Sophya window open all day, and when anyone “walked over” to your avatar it would be akin to peeking into the doorway of your office (remember that?).
Gather is more videogame-like than Sophya and VirBELA, with simpler avatars. You can create your own map or floor plan to make the two-dimensional space look more unique. When you get close to other people, a video chat spools up.
More Structured, Event-Based Tools
Workbook: NYC on NYE
RunTheWorld facilitates one-on-one “speed networking” with its Cocktail Party feature. (The startup also offers a broader conference platform.) Everyone who shows up within your defined time for networking gets matched at random with a series of other participants. And you can even define two different groups of participants, so that people in Group A — perhaps people who already work together regularly — only get matched with people in Group B, rather than one another. That feature could also be helpful if you wanted to have a networking event with customers or business partners, ensuring that your employees are not getting matched to each other.
Another speed-networking tool, but with more ways to structure conversations. Icebreaker lets you choose, or create, a deck of prompts that participants are supposed to discuss. Some examples: playing a game of “would you rather”… talking about your mentors… reflecting on the year just past… describing talents and skills that are not listed on your resume… and sharing places you’ve traveled to, or always wanted to visit. As with RunTheWorld, you can create two groups to make sure people are getting matched with people they may not already know well.